The Alaska Experience

In mid-August, we had our first visitors come to see us in Alaska. My in-laws traveled from Florida and we had 9 days of jam-packed Alaska adventures. This means that this post will be insanely long. I recommend fixing a snack and settling into your seat…because this will take awhile.

Day 1: Settling in
     Their flight arrived at 8 p.m. on a Sunday. We took them to our favorite Anchorage eatery, City Diner. Thanks to the still-extended (but rapidly decreasing) daylight, we drove home to the Mat-Su Valley around 9:30. The view of the Alaska Range, Talkeetna Range and Chugach mountains were silhouetted by aspen-glow clouds from the sunset.
    The following day we gathered together and headed out to Hatcher’s Pass, a visitor-friendly area with hiking areas, camping and a mining camp and museum. J and I had been there before and were looking forward to sharing it with his family. We drove up, with exclamations of wonder from his family (thankfully– it’s so beautiful we’d have been disappointed had there not been exclamations of wonder at the beauty of it all). It always surprises us how close we are to such a special place. Well, to so many special places. The Little Susitna river winds its way down from Mint Glacier and provides spectacular scenery long before you’re truly in Hatcher’s Pass. We stopped at the viewing areas so we could all take photos and take in the amazing view. Near a camp ground, we saw loads of people wandering around in the hillside and foothills of the hills (ha–little mountains, not hills!).
“Blueberry pickers!” J and I have been wanting to go blueberry picking since we learned they grew wildly up here. We stopped and began our picking. J’s brother immediately started climbing the nearest mountain. After collecting quite a few berries, J joined him and they climbed a mountain. While my husband climbed a mountain and his parents took photos of the scenery, I continued by berry picking at the foot of the mountain he was climbing. It was one of the special experiences you could only have in Alaska.

Day 2: Lake Lounging and Matanuska Glacier
    We needed to have our oil changed before heading to Whittier and Denali, our plans for days 3 and 4. J’s family and I spent time at Newcomb lake, lounging in the sun, while he went to have our car maintenance taken care of. J’s brother insisted on going swimming in the large lake in the center of Wasilla. The only other people in the water were under age 10. This is because the water was frigid. It was sunny and 65 (in the sun, at least). I laid in the grass, enjoying the sunshine…and fell asleep. I’m very cat-like (although I’d rather say I’m lion-like, I think that would be considered weird), and dozing in the sun while laying in the grass was just amazing.
    Once our car was all checked out, we headed to Palmer. We drove through downtown Palmer, which is the ideal picturesque town. We visited my favorite bookstore, Fireside Books, and walked the lamp-posts with hanging flower baskets- studded sidewalks. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.
   We continued on the Glenn Highway, one of America’s Scenic Byways (which I drive from Wasilla to Eagle River 4 times a week for work) towards the Matanuska Glacier. Random trapezoid-shaped areas consisted of trees with solely yellow leaves, while all the trees around them were still green. It was the perfect mix of fall and summer. We stopped often to take photos of the breathtaking views, turning around near Matanuska glacier. J’s goal was to reach Matanuska glacier before turning around, despite the fact we were going to Whittier the following day and our Prince William Sound cruise was titled “26 Glacier Cruises”.
      We headed back towards town, stopped and picked up a couple pizzas and ate under the stars on the deck of J’s parents’ hotel, the lake water lapping at the dock below. The dock was covered with ducks tucked into sleep, but occasionally one would wake with a start, flapping it’s wings and making that funny noise ducks make.

Here’s a glacier– Sorry, I forget which one. I think it’s Matanuska Glacier, but it may be on the Seward highway.

Day 3: Prince William Sound
    Whittier, the port where our 26 Glacier Cruise was leaving from, is a small town in Alaska accessibly by boat, plane and car. However, to drive there you share a tunnel going through a mountain. It’s a one-way road, with traffic changing direction every 20 minutes. There’s another 10 minute period after those 20 minutes where trains travel– in both directions. So basically you share a one way tunnel with both directions of traffic and both directions of trains.
       To get to Whittier from Anchorage (coming from the valley, we traveled through Anchorage to get to Whittier), you take the Seward Highway. The Seward Highway is another Scenic Byway of America. En-route, we stopped to take photos of the view and got to see wild Dall sheep playing on the mountainside. We stopped at Beluga point, but no Belugas were playing in the water that time of tide and day.
        It was drizzly and cloudy when we arrived in Whittier, with the parking lot full of great big puddles. I was already wet before I even got on the boat. Because there are glaciers on all sides surrounding Prince William Sound, and glaciers often calve (pieces of ice falling off glaciers), it will be cold on the water. We dressed accordingly and the interior of the boat (which has windows on all sides) is heated, so we were comfortable. There was also an endless supply of free hot coffee. I had way, way, way too much caffeine that day.
Here is our port:

       We got underway and our eyes immediately got tired from scanning for wildlife. We saw a lot of glaciers (they say it’s easier to see the glaciers when it’s cloudy). Here is a list of the wildlife we saw: sea otters (everywhere!!), sea lions, seals, 2 bald eagles and a humpback whale.

One of the 26 glaciers

Sea otters chilling on an ice berg. Ha! Get it? Chilling!?

      Now, the whale has a story.
      When I say we saw a whale, you’re probably picturing a giant whale jumping out of the water “Free Willy” style. I would have LOVED that. However, that’s not what we saw. Being science-minded as he is, J noticed a flock of birds swirling over one particular spot. We had rented binoculars (bought our own the next day), and I trained them on that spot. Within moments, the whales head popped out of the water and then back in. J looked with the binoculars his parents had rented and left on the table (they were walking around) and again, the whale bobbed his head in and out of the water. We both, “Wow, is that a whale!?”.  We didn’t want to announce it in case it wasn’t. Someone overheard us and told the captain to stop the boat. Of course the whale didn’t resurface after that. After a few minutes, we started moving again and the captain announced that what he thought the people who saw the whale actually saw was a seal tossing around a fish.
   Um, no. It was a whale head. All day long. So ha.
   And that’s our whale story. Not as exciting as Moby Dick…but also not nearly as long.

Day 4: Denali National Park
      All I can say is Wow. I mean, WOW.
      Ok, obviously I’m me, and I can say more. But really– WOW. If you ever have the opportunity to go to  Denali, DO IT.

    We arrived at the Park after much stress over how to get there. You simply take the Parks Highway, you guessed it– another scenic byway (I think?)– to the Park entrance. It’s about 3.5 hours from Wasilla. We stopped at Arby’s on our way out because Wasilla is the last town before the Park that has fast food and not just sit-down restaurants. The park itself has no restaurants of any kind, or gas stations or anything else. You can drive 15 miles of the park road in your car, but after that it’s buses and hikers only. We had been told there was a 3 p.m. shuttle tour that would be finished around 9 p.m. (this is the shortest tour– 6 hours). When we arrived at 2:30, we were told that the person who had informed us of the 3 p.m. tour was mistaken.
       Keep in mind, we just spent 3.5 hours in a small car. This is NOT the time to tell us we missed the last tour. We were already concerned because only 30% of Denali visitors actually see the mountain– Denali, highest mountain in North America and technically the highest mountain in the world (because the base is at sea level whereas Everest’s base is on another mountain, above sea level. Take that, Everest!). Anyway, it was cloudy, so our expectations were low and disappointment was already high.
          Thankfully, there was one more tour. It left at 5 p.m. and returned at 11 p.m. Keep in mind, we have 3 dogs in our apartment whom we left at 9:30 a.m. We didn’t want to be gone until 2:30 a.m.
         We signed up for the 5 p.m. tour, knowing we’d have to cut it short and catch another bus on its way back. We drove to mile 15, thought we spotted some wildlife, took some photos, I pointed where I thought the mountain was behind the clouds and then we headed back to the main building where we’d board the bus.

           We watched a little video on the history of the park and I visited the gift shop. I have two frequently traveling friends who always send me post cards. Now it was finally my turn! I also found a really cool magnet set. Yes, I know I’m a dork. We also picked up some snacks in the gift shop– lunchables, peanut M&M’s (my weakness), etc. We packed up our lunch and went to wait for the bus.
          While we were waiting, the sun came out. Yay, warmth! Our bus arrived, we boarded and set off. We stopped to take photos of a caribou, came over the crest of a hill/small mountain (it’s getting hard to tell the difference), and there it was. Denali, in all it’s glory. We’re part of the 30% club! Our bus driver said he hadn’t seen the mountain for 2 weeks and this summer had been especially cloudy, so it was more like the 10% club.  Here’s a photo of Denali:

       
Shortly after, we spotted this caribou:

Here are some more photos of Denali:

Like I said. Breathtaking. Go there

Wildlife we saw includes moose (maybe– far away), bald eagle, dall sheep rams, dall sheep and the caribou.

Oh! I almost forgot. We also saw a grizzly bear. I only took video and for some reason it isn’t showing up on my computer. But we were on the shuttle bus going through the park and we stopped to watch an adolescent grizzly bear eat berries. It was awesome.

Day 5 Rest already!
      Day 5 we took a break. We had spent way too much time in the car/on buses/on boats and need a day of rest to recuperate. So we did.

Day 6 Big Lake
     About 20 minutes from our apartment is Big Lake. Big Lake is a small town around a ton of lakes. There is a park we frequently take the dogs to where a family of wild swans live. We took our pups and J’s family to the park to play.
      Of course J’s brother had to jump in the lake, which was equally cold as the lake in Wasilla. This lake had wild salmon swimming in it that we could see. It was incredible.

Day 7 Animals Galore
    We started out our day at the Iditarod Trail headquarters. This is about 7 miles down the road from our house. It’s a great place to learn the history of the Iditarod and see videos from past years. We also got to go on a cart-ride pulled by the Iditarod sled dog team that placed 7th last year. Our card driver was the son of Joe Reddington, the man who re-started the Iditarod race and made it what it is today. There was also an adorable sled dog puppy, only 7 weeks old.

Only 7 weeks old! I wanted to dognap him, not going to lie.

A statue of Joe Reddington Sr, the father of our sled dog ride driver.

After leaving the Iditarod Museum, which was rather hard because that puppy was Adorable (notice the capital A), we went to Palmer to the Reindeer Farm. If you visit Alaska, the Reindeer Farm is a must. They have caribou, reindeer, bison and horses. We got to feed reindeer and baby reindeer. Oh, and we got to feed moose!

Caribou

I’m petting a reindeer–might be a baby.

I’m feeding a moose!

It was a really special experience. I also made friends with a giant horse named Guiness, who I’m now calling Guinny because we’re just that close. It was LOADS of fun. And only $7 a person! For those of you with kiddies, it’s also really educational. And who doesn’t want to feed a baby reindeer?!

Day 9: Packing Up and Moving On
    On their last day, J, his parents and I went to lunch at a restaurant his mom had wanted to try. Then we went into Eagle River to the Eagle River Nature Center. We went on a short walk around the trails and saw even more wild salmon. We also saw a sign that said, “Trail closed– bears feeding on spawning salmon”. You certainly don’t see that every day.

  That night, I flew to Oklahoma to surprise my family for a visit. I got my Taco Bueno fix and got to see all of my family– it was a really special week. More so because of the family than the Taco Bueno. And for a week I didn’t have to count every time I wanted to call someone! However, I did melt. One day it was TWICE as hot in Oklahoma as it was in Alaska. It was nice to come home to Alaska, where the heat index was NOT 110.

Whew. You made it. Ok, Snow White is probably next. Look for it soon 🙂

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